EDMONTON — What does the June 28 Canadian election mean for Americans? I’ll give you one obvious answer: It’s the easiest Canadian election for Americans to understand, from their vantage point, in the last 20 years.
Writing about Canadian politics for an American audience is often a near-impossible exercise. When you’re done enumerating the various grievances, constitutional squabbles, parliamentary niceties, and changing party identities, you’ve gone past your word-count limit twice over. But this time out, things are a little clearer, though maybe only a little.
The ruling Liberals, who held a majority in the House of Commons at the dissolution of Parliament, are fighting for their lives and losing. Shortly after shipping magnate Paul Martin Jr. succeeded Jean Chretien as Liberal leader and prime minister late in 2003, the party was smacked with a devastating scandal involving federal advertising contracts given to Liberal-connected consultancies in Quebec. The contracts were awarded in violation of civil-service guidelines, no work seems to have been done for much of the cash, and some of the money may have flowed back into Liberal Party coffers.
In many regards this was a replay of other long-standing “scandals” only too familiar to Canadian voters, but it was a tipping point — the final horrible signal, for some, that the Liberals had steered Canada into a banana-monarchy swamp of amorality.
Martin, as is his privilege as Prime Minister, called a quick election, hoping to renew his term before more damaging disclosures could become public. But the door was left wide open to his opponents. Canada’s conservatives, fractured into two parties by 15 years of regional quarreling, had just reunited. The new Conservatives, under Albertan economist Stephen Harper, are leading in most polls and will almost certainly end up with the most seats — somewhere between 130 and 160 in the new 308-seat Commons.
Depending on whether the Conservatives reach 155 seats, and on how many the other parties get, there are a half-dozen credible constitutional possibilities for the aftermath of June 28. Many of the paths, perhaps most, lead to Stephen Harper becoming prime minister of Canada sooner or later, whether as a footnote to history or the head of a strong Conservative government.
HARPER, 45, MOVED TO Canada’s conservative West as a young man and received a master’s degree in economics at the University of Calgary, home to many or most of Canada’s respected and “radical” right wing scholars. He probably has a more thorough grounding in Hayek, Friedman, and classical liberalism than any comparably famous figure on the national scene down south.
Harper was present at the founding of the West’s schismatic Reform Party — an authenticist alternative to the centralizing, big-government, phony “conservatism” of the Progressive Conservatives — and was first elected as an MP in 1993. He became known as the brains of Reform, a low-profile but influential generator of innovative proposals. He quit the Commons in 1998, but when Reform’s successor (the Canadian Alliance) needed a new chieftain in 2001, Harper was convinced to return to a party always short on eloquent bilinguals.
No one expected too much, but in late 2003, Harper joined with PC leader Peter MacKay to re-merge the two conservative parties by force majeure. He won a crushing victory in the runoff for mastery of the unified party. He renovated his style so fundamentally that some people are now calling the simpering policy wonk “Kennedyesque.” And he is, so far, beating the Liberals in an election campaign that, in the U.S., would barely cover the time between the New Hampshire primaries and Super Tuesday.
In essence, the Liberals are liberals, and the Conservatives are Conservatives — which is not to say that Harper hasn’t been “triangulating” madly, Clinton-fashion. Just as Democratic politicians always have an uphill battle in proving their patriotic credentials, Conservative ones here have to work twice as hard to convince Eastern voters of their “Canadian” orientation. Harper has thus been obliged, or has found it convenient, to promise that the Cuban-style healthcare system will be protected and given lavish new infusions of cash; he has incessantly disavowed the intention of acting on Canada’s absence of any law regulating abortion; he has stuffed Canada’s immigration issues into the back corner of the closet; and he has speculated openly about extending universal healthcare to cover drugs.
Harper will, when pressed, defend heterosexual exceptionalism in matrimonial law. But mostly he prefers to fight on the ground of Liberal scandals, and to argue the big point on which libertarians and social conservatives can agree — namely, that the mad expansion of the Canadian federal state at twice the rate of the economy must be checked.
A HARPER VICTORY WOULD MEAN a return in foreign policy to a pro-American stance and an end to the vaguely Gallic, religiously pro-UN tendencies exhibited over the past ten years. This is one of the big wedge issues in the campaign, and it overlaps onto both defense policy and “border issues”; in a sense it’s a replay of Aznar vs. the Spanish socialists, or Tony Blair vs. his own party. To put things in a way that summarizes the dialectic neatly, Michael Moore has stopped by to urge Canadians not to vote Conservative.
The Liberals under Jean Chretien specialized in sly insults against the U.S., handling the relationship so awkwardly that the Canadian embassy in Washington has had to create its own promotional website to counteract American opprobrium. The Bush administration, for its part, has done little to promote cross-border amity. The President has gone rhetorically wobbly on free trade at times; the border has remained closed to Canadian beef exports, on account of a single mad cow; and a tariff war over British Columbia’s softwood lumber has stumbled along in NAFTA tribunals at a snail’s pace.
Stephen Harper argues that acknowledging the United States’ overwhelming importance to Canada, and accepting its basic decency, will enable him to rebuild something like the influence Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney had during the Reagan years. But the overselling of the war in Iraq has created an embarrassment for Harper, who felt that Canada ought to have participated more actively.
The Canadian Forces provided logistical support in Iraq, and allowed troops previously seconded to American units to fight there, but the Canadian government had too many other international commitments to designate new troops for the conflict, and formally opposed American “unilateralism.” One of those other commitments, it should be noted, is the war in Afghanistan, where Canadians have distinguished themselves in combat.
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